Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Insights into Editorial: How covid-19 is transforming global manufacturing


Brief Background:

Firms began relocating production to low-wage countries in the early 1990s, aided by the fall of the Iron Curtain, China’s global integration and eventual accession to the World Trade Organization, and the rise of containerization.

The period between 1990 and the 2008 global financial crisis has been called an era of hyper-globalization in which global value chains accounted for about 60% of global trade.

The 2008 global financial and economic crisis marked the beginning of the end of this era of hyper-globalization. In 2011, global value chains stopped expanding. They have not grown again since.

This reversal was driven by uncertainty:

From 2008 to 2011, the World Uncertainty Index increased by 200%.

To compare, during the 2002-03 outbreak of the Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, the World Uncertainty Index rose by 70%.

After the United Kingdom voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, the World Uncertainty Index surged by 250%.

When uncertainty rises, global value chains suffer. Based on past data, one can predict that a 300% increase in uncertainty—as the covid-19 pandemic seems likely to produce—would reduce global supply-chain activity by 35.4%.

Firms no longer consider the cost savings of offshoring to be worth the risk.

Shifting the medium of Labour force by manufacturing companies: Robots:

As the covid-19 pandemic escalates, the risks inherent in global supply chains are more apparent than ever.

Rather than await a return to business as usual, with manufacturing activities concentrated in countries where labour is cheap and plentiful, advanced-economy companies are shifting their focus to the lowest-wage workers of all: robots.

Robots are minimizing the importance of Labour costs in Production:

  1. At a time when adopting robots is cheaper than ever, the incentive to reshore production is even stronger. The arithmetic is simple.
  2. A company in, say, the United States of America would have to pay an American worker a lot more than, say, a Vietnamese or Bangladeshi one.
  3. But a United-States-of-America-based robot would not demand wages at all, let alone benefits like health insurance or sick leave.
  4. Investment in robots is not new. Advanced-economy firms have been pursuing it since the mid-1990s, led by the automotive industry, which can account for 50-60% of a country’s robot stock.
  5. In Germany—a global leader in robot adoption—robots per 10,000 workers in manufacturing stood at 322 in 2017.
  6. Only South Korea (with 710 robots per 10,000 workers) and Singapore (with 658 robots per 10,000 workers) have a higher ratio. The United States of America has 200 robots per 10,000 workers.
  7. In fact, when the 2008 crisis struck, some countries, such as Germany, already had enough robots to minimize the importance of labour costs in production.
  8. Many others, aided by the sharp post-2008 decline in interest rates relative to wages, boosted robot adoption and reshored a larger share of production.

Reshoring activities adopting by the developed countries in near future:

  1. The same is likely to happen today. Based on monetary policy so far, a 30% drop in interest rates can be expected, as central banks try to offset the damage of the covid-19 pandemic.
  2. Past data indicate that this could bring a 7% acceleration in robot adoption. (It will not bring an unbridled boom in robot adoption, because rising uncertainty also deters investment.)
  3. This trend will be concentrated in the sectors that are most exposed to global value chains.
  4. In Germany, that means autos and transport equipment, electronics, and textiles—industries that import around 12% of their inputs from low-wage countries. (Overall, the German economy imports 6.5% of the inputs it uses.)
  5. Globally, the industries where the most reshoring activity is taking place are chemicals, metal products, and electrical products and electronics. The chemical industry stands out as the top reshorer in France, Germany, Italy and the United States of America.
  6. This trend poses a major threat to many developing countries’ growth models, which depend on low-cost manufacturing and exports of intermediate inputs.
  7. In Central and Eastern Europe, some countries have responded to this challenge by investing in robots themselves. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia (which have large foreign-owned auto sectors) now have more robots per 10,000 workers than the United States of America or France.
  8. And the strategy seems to be working: they remain an attractive offshoring destination for rich countries.

How to respond to COVID-19 implications in manufacturing and supply chains and increase resilience:

Global Value Chains are undergoing profound changes, with important implications for the manufacturing and production ecosystem.

In 2019, WEF developed a framework to anticipate the ongoing reconfiguration of Global Value Chains and derive key imperatives for businesses and policy makers.

The emergence of COVID-19 is accelerating the change of global value delivery models, with unprecedented consequences for manufactures and supply chains.

Mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on manufacturers and supply chains requires both new approaches and new forms of collaboration to increase overall resilience.

Therefore, there is a need of proposing a new framework to help governments and companies think through the implications of the ongoing transformations of Global Value Chains for their industrial development and investment strategies.

Thinking of new opportunities for multi-stakeholder collaboration for national economies in order to advance their levels of readiness, built resilience and have a role to play in next-generation Global Value Chains.


Low-cost manufacturing hubs in Asia may have a harder time in economic terms, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

China, which secured its economic rise by establishing itself at the centre of many global value chains, will face particularly serious challenges, despite its plans to shift to higher-value-added activities and boost domestic consumption.

Between rising protectionism (especially in the United States) and the covid-19 pandemic, the advanced economies seem to be geared up for a manufacturing renaissance.

But while this may reduce risks for large firms, it probably will not benefit very many advanced-economy workers, let alone the developing countries from which production is being shifted. For that, governments will need to implement policies suited to this new economic order.